Very Blind

From “Faith and ExperienceParochial and Plain Sermons (1838)

Among the sons of Jesse, he whom Samuel thought to be the destined king of Israel was of imposing countenance and stature, not like David, a youth, ruddy indeed, and handsome, but one whom the Philistines might despise. Samuel and Goliath, a prophet of God and a heathen giant, both judged by what met their eyes. Samuel, when he saw the manly form and face of Eliab, said, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before God.” And God answered, “Do not look on his countenance, or on the height of his stature, because I have refused him, for the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” And Goliath, when “he looked about and saw David,” “disdained him, for he was but a youth, and ruddy, and of a fair countenance.” And to him David answered for himself; “The Lord saves not with sword and spear, for the battle is the Lord’s .” Even then, as in the latter days, the weak were strong, and the strong weak; the first last, and the last first; the mighty cast down from their seat, and the humble and meek exalted.

And much more now, when the Most High has hidden himself beneath a servant’s form, and after ascending into heaven, sent his Holy Ghost as our invisible guide and comforter, now, far more than before, do we require to be warned, not to judge by what we see, but by what God has said. When his word and his outward world are at variance in the information they convey to us, it is our bounden duty to trust the revealed word, and not the visible world

Now I propose to consider one part of this large subject: to insist on a point which is very important, the necessity we lie under, if we would be Christians indeed, of drawing our religious notions and views, not from what we see, but from what we do not see and only hear; or rather, the great mistake under which men of the world lie, of judging of religious subjects merely by what the experience of life tells them. We must believe something; the difference between religious men and others is, that the latter trust this world, the former the world unseen. Both of them have faith, but the one have faith in the surface of things, the other in the word of God…

Let us consider a doctrine much debated and much resisted at this day, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Scripture tells us expressly that, “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God;” and that God has saved us “by the washing of regeneration;” and that “Baptism saves us;” and that we “wash away our sins” by baptism.

No other means have been pointed out to us for attaining regeneration, or the new birth; so that, while baptism is said to take us out of a state of nature into a state of grace, if a man is not born again in baptism, it does not appear how he is to be born again. Such is the true doctrine, which has ever been received in the whole church.

Yet, on the other hand, consider how hard a battle faith has to fight against experience in this matter, and how certain it is that nothing but faith can overcome it. That baptism really does change a man’s moral state as well as his state in God’s sight… this seems to be certain from Scripture. But whether certain or not, these effects do not show themselves perceptible at first, or perhaps at all… I say then, we have these startling appearances: persons brought up without baptism may show themselves just the same in character, temper, opinions, and conduct, with those who have been baptized; or when these differ from those, this difference may be sufficiently or exactly accounted for by their education….

Here then, I say, is experience counter to the word of God, which says, that except a man be born of water and the Spirit he is no member of Christ’s kingdom. To which may be added, the nature of the rite of baptism itself, its great simplicity, even supposing immersion is used, and much more in the case of pouring or sprinkling. No outward rite indeed can measure the great dignity of the gift of regeneration; were the outward ceremonies ever so laborious they would not be adequate; a simple rite, on the other hand, is a symbol of the freeness of the grace given us.

[Regarding success], this was the perplexity of believers in the old time, as we read in the psalms and prophets, that the wicked should prosper while God’s servants seemed to fail. And so too in Gospel times. Not that the church has not this peculiar prerogative with it, which no other religious body has, that as it began with Christ’s first coming, so it will never fail until he comes again; but that for a time, in the course of single generations, no, I may say in every age and at all times, it seems to be failing, and its enemies to be prevailing.

It is the peculiarity of the warfare between the church and the world, that the world seems ever gaining on the church, yet the church is really ever gaining on the world. Its enemies are ever triumphing over it as vanquished, and its members ever despairing; yet it abides. It abides, and it sees the ruin of its oppressors and enemies. “O how suddenly do they consume, perish, and come to a fearful end!” Kingdoms rise and fall; nations expand and contract; dynasties begin and end; princes are born and die; confederacies are made and unmade, and parties, and companies, and crafts, and guilds, and establishments, and philosophies, and sects, and heresies. They have their day, but the church is eternal; yet in their day they seem of much account. How in early times must the church have been dismayed, when, from the east, false religion spread far and near, and Christians were extirpated or converted by it by thousands! Yet even that long-lived delusion is now failing…

Let us pray God to teach us: we need his teaching; we are very blind. The apostles on one occasion said to Christ, when his words tried them, “increase our faith.” Let us come to Christ honestly: we cannot help ourselves; we do not know ourselves; we need his grace. Whatever perplexity the world gives us, whether about the doctrine of regenerating baptism, or about the church apostolic, or about the necessity of maintaining the Gospel faith, or about the doctrine of everlasting punishment, (blessed are they who have no such trials, but some have!) let us come to him with pure and sincere minds, imploring him to reveal to us what we know not, to incline our hearts when they are stubborn, and to make us love and obey him honestly while we seek, and not to seek mere barren knowledge which perishes.

St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was among the most widely influential English theologians of the nineteenth century. One of the principal leaders of Anglicanism’s Catholic revival at Oxford in the 1830’s, he became a Roman Catholic in 1845, and was an Oratorian for the remainder of his life. He was made a cardinal shortly before his death and was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 2019. His Parochial and Plain Sermons, first published in 1863, were written in his years as an Anglican priest, while serving as vicar of Oxford’s Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. His feast day on the Roman Calendar is October 9 and he is commemorated on other days on the liturgical calendars of several Anglican Churches.


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